A History of Reading


372 pages
Contains Photos, Illustrations, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-394-28032-6
DDC 028'.09




Reviewed by John D. Blackwell

John D. Blackwell is Reference Librarian/Collections Coordinator of the
Goldfarb Library at Brandeis University in Massachusetts.


Reading is the means by which human beings experience much of what is
best about their civilization, past and present. This splendid book
presents an historical survey of humanity’s obsession with reading.

For Alberto Manguel, an Argentinian who has adopted Canada as his home
and has earned international acclaim as an author, a journalist, an
editor, and a translator, reading is a lifelong, consuming passion. A
History of Reading is a highly personal—indeed, often
self-indulgent— book that touches on everything from abbreviations to
Zoroaster. Always the master storyteller without any academic
pretentiousness, Manguel takes his readers on a labyrinthine odyssey
through the history of reading. Each chapter is a separate meditation,
exploring such diverse themes as silent readers, memory, learning to
read, picture reading, being read to, the shape of the book, stealing
books, the translator as reader, forbidden reading, and the book fool.

Reading this book is, in itself, a highly aesthetic experience. Great
care has been taken in its design. The author does, of course, have a
heightened appreciation of what constitutes a pleasing book. Perhaps the
most moving feature of this volume is the large selection, perceptive
analysis, and beautiful reproduction of images of readers throughout
history. One unforgettable photograph shows three men browsing in a
bombed-out London library during World War II. They are oblivious of the
destruction around them—each reader is totally immersed in the world
of his text.

Manguel would probably concede that technology continues to change and
challenge the ways in which people read. The medium does affect the
message. In The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic
Age (1994), Sven Birkerts poignantly addresses the impact of computers
and cyberspace on reading. His sobering study serves as a counterpoint
to Manguel’s unfettered optimism.

Lucy Maud Montgomery once wrote “Blessings be on the inventors of the
alphabet, pen and printing press! Life would be—to me at all
events—a terrible thing without books!” It is difficult not to agree
after savoring Manguel’s compelling history of reading, which will
almost certainly become a classic.


Manguel, Alberto., “A History of Reading,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed June 21, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/4625.